What to take to chemo: navigating the unknown…

 In Breast cancer, Clothing, Coping with Chronic illness, Patient Experience

The fear and apprehension that comes with a first chemo session is enough to boggle even the best of brains. With emotions running high, it can seem overwhelming to prepare for the unknown and difficult to know what to take with you to ensure you are comfortable and have all you need within arm’s reach. Don’t worry. To be feeling a little lost is perfectly normal

 Fortunately, or rather unfortunately, you are not alone and those that have already got a few of these treatment sessions under their belts have helpfully shared their tips on social media and via their own blogs. Indeed, since INGA Wellbeing’s range of attractive and comfortable clothing for patients was inspired by our own mothers’ experiences of having chemotherapy, we thought it would be helpful if we compiled useful advice from them – Inga and Diana – together with suggestions from our customers, patient support groups we work alongside, and others having treatment for cancer.  

 Hopefully, being prepared on a practical level will help you to feel calmer and more mentally ready. And of course, we would value your tips and tricks, thoughts and ideas to share too, so please do leave a comment or get in touch.

 Dress ‘well’ to help you feel well:

Let’s start with a subject in which we are the experts: clothing. You’ll need to wear something that enables nurses to easily access your arm (to take your blood pressure) and your portacath, and layers that you can take on and off as your body temperature fluctuates (especially if you are braving an ice cap). Once you are hooked up, dressing and undressing is not so easy so a shawl or wrap is a good idea, though they can slip off or bunch up. Our adapted men’s and women’s wear, when teamed with your favourite pair of trousers or skirt, will enable you to look and feel completely normal dressed on your way to the hospital, while being able to take off a layer quickly and easily even when connected and allow the nurses to access your body without revealing too much.  Jenni Sheldon of traveltorecovery blog wrote about the benefits of wearing an INGA Wellbeing cross-over top to her chemotherapy sessions here.

 For extra luxury, and to warm your extremities and counter an icy blast from an air-conditioner, you might want to nevertheless take along a soft shawl and socks. Indeed, as well as an INGA Wellbeing top, either of these would make an excellent gift from a friend or colleague if they wanted suggestions.

 Take note:

It’s always a good idea to have a notebook … or your smartphone … with you. Other patients you’ll meet will almost certainly have some great bits of advice you may want to note down, as well as names and contact information of people you’d like to stay in touch with. Many people also say that keeping a journal, or log, of their thoughts during those long hours also helped to make the time pass more quickly and if you have written down some affirmations or positive reminders, now is a great time to read them.

Being reminded of our stronger, more positive selves, or reading supportive notes and cards from others, can give you a much-needed boost.

 Keep it clean:

Take some hand sanitiser wipes or gel to clean your hands and wipe down arm rests and anything that you’d rather be certain was germ free while your immunity is laid low.


Chemo days are LONG! It can be hours between having your blood taken, getting the results, then waiting to be hooked up for the treatment, and the infusion itself.  For many it can be hard to concentrate, so it’s a good idea to take a selection of things to distract you. A little escapism at this point can be very helpful.

 Books: We asked Mr B’s online book shop to create a reading list with patients in mind – great tales  to transport you elsewhere in your mind, without the worry of the story line becoming an unexpected weepy, or raising subject matters you would rather avoid at this time.  Take a look at the list here, and be sure to share any other titles you found particularly good.

 Music: An MP3 or smartphone loaded with your favourite tunes can be the perfect distraction from the sights, sounds and smells of hospital. Create a playlist – or better still have one of your friends and family do it for you.  Different lists for different moods – relaxing, uplifting, calming. Your loved ones are no doubt eager to find practical ways that they can support you and this is a simple thing that they can take charge of. Alternatively, there is always Spotify, which takes the hassle out of playlists entirely by suggesting playlists based on your own initial track choices.

 Colouring, crosswords or puzzles:  Sodoku was the diversion of choice for co-founder Claire’s mum during her years of chemotherapy, though she admits she rarely went beyond the easy ones as the infamous chemo brain fog settled in. It’s worth having some crossword, colouring, sodoku, cards or puzzle books in your bag to while away an hour or so.  There are some wonderful mindfulness colouring book for adults these days – turns out the kids were on to a good thing all this time!

 Playing catch up: Ahead of your chemo session, you or a loved one could download films, box sets or comedy classics on to your smartphone, tablet or laptop and then your time sitting still can be spent inhabiting another world entirely. Just don’t forget to take along a  great pair of headphones to avoid disturbing others and make sure that they are comfortable to wear for several hours. You might even invest in a pair that helps to block outside noises out for a more complete escape.

 Games and Apps: Time rushes by when playing some of the incredible electronic games that have been invented to suit all ages. Best to choose those that don’t require WiFi as this is notoriously unreliable in most hospitals. Ones we have tried, or others have recommended would be Gummy drop, wordscapes or backgammon – either playing against the computer or if you have somebody to play against it’s an amusing distraction.

 Food and drink:

Snacks are always worth taking along to avoid the hospital food – try to keep them healthy, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be delicious – a little chocolate goes a long way!  Ginger biscuits or chews, hard boiled sweets and ‘queasy drops’ are particularly recommended as they help combat nausea while also tasting great! 

 Water, water, water – it is so important to keep hydrated so consider buying a really great water bottle that is easy to drink from, non-drip and ensures you have a constant and ready supply.

 Pure comfort:

Pillow and blanket – don’t worry that you look like you’re moving in!  You are going to be sitting still for quite a while and not all hospital chairs are built for comfort.  A small pillow or favourite cushion will help you find a more comfortable position and help you rest more easily with your own washing powder smells to enjoy.  A blanket will keep you warm when the chills hit.

 Creams & lip balms – Many people find themselves suffering from very dry lips and skin.  It’s really worth packing a lovely balm, hand and face creams, though the less scented the better as strong smells can bring on nausea for some.

 In the bag:

Find a good, reliable bag to take what you need into hospital and have it ready, pre-packed in your closet. As you become a more experienced visitor to the chemo ward you will trim its’ contents back to precisely what you find works for you. We have practical zippered canvas tote bags, in natural or black, that are specially designed to help with hospital visits as the adjustable shoulder strap ensures drains are carried at the right height and the short handles can be attached to a belt, bed or chair for hands-free ease of access.  Personal possessions can be kept securely in the inner zippered pocket.  Of course, our bags do have their limits and you’ll need an extra big bag if you are going to take along a blanket, pillow and several books as well!  

 We really hope that this list is helpful and wish you all the best with your future treatment. If you have any additions you would like to suggest, then please do add a comment below and follow us on FacebookInstagram or Twitter for more ideas to make hospital visits more tolerable.

 Oh, and you can find a list of distractions to take your mind off treatments between chemo sessions, courtesy of blogger tickingoffbreastcancer here.  If you need a little extra help from friend and family during your chemo sessions please also take a look at our With Love and Best Wishes pages providing practical suggestions as to how help can be provided to ensure you maintain the energy needed through these gruelling months. 

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